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Backwater controls on the evolution and avulsion of the Qingshuigou channel on the Yellow River Delta

Zheng, Shan, Edmonds, Douglas A., Wu, Baosheng, Han, Shasha
Geomorphology 2019 v.333 pp. 137-151
drawdown, floods, geometry, hydrodynamics, pollution load, river deltas, rivers, sediment transport, sediment yield, sediments, shorelines, surveys, topography, Yellow River
As rivers approach base level, their water and sediment dynamics are affected by a transitional reach known as the backwater zone. At low flows, backwater zones cause flow deceleration and in-channel sedimentation, but at high flows, they cause flow acceleration and erosion. Over many floods, the dynamics of deposition and erosion in the backwater zone are thought to control the locations of avulsions on some large deltaic channels. However, in various studies, the role of the backwater is often inferred or modeled, and directly observed evidence of how backwater affects channel dynamics at avulsion sites remains scarce. In this study, we show how the backwater zone impacts the evolution and avulsion of the Qingshuigou channel, a recent lobe on the Yellow River Delta, using four decades (1976–2015) of data from systematic surveys of water discharge, sediment load, cross-sectional profiles and water surface elevation. The results show that the channel was commonly eroded during flood seasons and aggraded during nonflood seasons. Erosion rates generally decreased in the downstream direction along the lower channel reach during flood seasons, primarily due to downstream channel widening and the subsequent decrease in sediment transport capacity. The erosion rate reached zero at the cross-sections farthest downstream, which is contrary to expectations under hydrodynamic backwater effects, where drawdown causes erosion to increase downstream during high flows. During nonflood seasons, maximum sedimentation occurred upstream of the backwater zone, possibly due to impacts of local topography of meandering bends or constriction from dikes. Morphodynamic backwater accompanied by the deposition and gradual progradation of a mouth bar resulted in downstream increasing sedimentation, superelevation, and lateral migration rates along the lower channel reach from 1985 to 1996. The predicted avulsion location was near cross-sections Q6 or Q7 with an avulsion length of ~20–30 km upstream of the shoreline, which was consistent with those for historical avulsions. We emphasize the close interplay between backwater effects and channel geometry and argue that morphodynamic backwater may play a more important role than hydrodynamic backwater in setting up and triggering avulsions on the Yellow River Delta.